Omaha plans electric scooter pilot program

Electric scooters already are a go in Tulsa, Oklahoma, above. Omaha will pick up to three scooter companies to participate in a pilot program here.

When the city announced plans to give dockless electric scooters a try, Omahans had questions.

How exactly will they work? Where will people use them? Can you leave them literally anywhere? Will they be ... a nuisance?

Officials expect growing pains as the scooters, which users can rent for short-term use, are introduced to the city. But they’re working to integrate them as best as possible and researching how they’ve worked elsewhere.

The World-Herald spoke to Derek Miller, the city’s long range and mobility planning manager, and others about the seven-month pilot program, which kicks off in March. Here’s what they said:

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Where will users be able to ride the scooters?

The scooters will likely be banned from sidewalks but will be allowed on streets, much like bicycles. Miller said it would be unsafe for pedestrians and scooters, which can go as fast as 15 mph, to share the sidewalk.

The city is also looking to restrict them from streets with speeds higher than 35 mph.

The city is looking at other restrictions, like whether to allow them on the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge. Bikes can go on the bridge, but there are concerns about the path getting too congested.

Details will be worked out before the pilot begins. And the city will require an education campaign, so that people know what to expect.

But how can you stop a user from going somewhere?

With GPS technology, the scooters can be kept out of certain areas through “geo-fencing,” a virtual boundary that would disable the scooter if it entered a restricted area.

For example, if Creighton University or the University of Nebraska at Omaha didn’t want them, a user’s scooter would roll to a stop once they entered campus.

Where will these be used primarily?

Probably mostly in downtown and midtown.

Mode Shift Omaha, which advocates for various transit options, thinks the city should consider temporarily converting some lanes of vehicle traffic downtown into bike lanes during the scooter pilot. Board member Derek Babb said electric scooters don’t go fast enough to keep up with traffic on the streets and are better-suited for use in a dedicated bike lane.

He said he’s used them in other cities and they’re really fun. “You don’t ever see someone frowning on one,” he said.

Scott Dobbe, executive director of Omaha by Design, said the scooters will be a good option for what urban planners call the last mile. “They can fill a role as an option for those short to medium-length trips — traversing a few city blocks, or connecting the ‘last mile’ from a transit stop to home,” he said.

Scooter ridership has exceeded expectations in places like Kansas City, Miller said.

“Even though it seems like a novelty or a weird idea, I think we’re going to see a lot of ridership in Omaha,” he said, “especially during the summer months and College World Series.”

When you’re done, can you leave the scooters anywhere?

Yes, but the hope is that users will drop them off in public spaces.

The city is concerned that they’ll be littered or left on sidewalks. San Diego and Lime and Bird, two electric scooter companies, are facing a federal lawsuit filed by a disability rights group that alleges that the scooters block access to streets and sidewalks.

There’s also concerns about them being left on private property. But Miller said the scooters have GPS so users can see where they are, as can workers for the scooter companies. (Workers retrieve them at night to charge them for the next day’s use.)

Holly Barrett, executive director of the Downtown Improvement District, said she’s concerned about them being left around the Old Market, particularly on the historically narrow sidewalks.

“We want to make sure that they’re not left just willy-nilly all over,” she said.

Say I fall off the scooter and hurt myself. Who’s liable?

Under the agreement it signs with vendors, the city will waive all liability in the event of an injury, Miller said. Nationally, he said, liability has generally fallen to the user. And some companies require users to sign a waiver when they sign up to use the scooter.

Doctors in participating cities have reported an influx of severe accidents after the scooters launched in their cities.

Is any public money being spent on this pilot program?

No, though city staff are spending time working on it. The companies bidding on the opportunity to participate in the pilot program have to pay the city.

To participate, companies must pay the city $10,000 for a permit. They must also pay the city 50 cents per day per scooter and 5 cents per ride per day, plus submit safety records to the city.

The city will pick up to three scooter companies to participate in the pilot. Each company can have as many as 500 scooters. They can double the size of their fleet if they include north and South Omaha, Miller said.

Why is the city even involved?

Electric scooter companies have launched in other cities, like Salt Lake City, without notice or permission. Omaha wanted to be proactive, with parameters in place, before that happened, Miller said.

“They can come in (to Omaha) now. We don’t have any regulations against it,” he said. “But we want to be proactive and manage it, instead of them just coming in.”

Barrett, from the downtown organization, commended the city for taking the lead. She said she owns an electric scooter and uses it downtown, where she lives and works. It turns a 15-minute walk into a three-minute trip.

“I do love it,” she said.

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